It’s no cliché that the woman’s body was liberated in the 1920s.
The kind of clothing women wore in the XIX century, was clearly a kind of garment that was designed to hamper her in her everyday life and would effectively restrict the range of her activities. She would wear a bodice to shape her body into an hourglass, the way it most suggested femininity in the aesthetics of the time, but that very bodice made her breathing difficult to a point that fainting was a common occurrence especially in the last part of the XIX century. Long skirt further limited movements, making many activities difficult – and so undesirable – for many women.
Indeed, women’s look revealed women’s social position even before the 1920s.
But in the 1920s women’s expectations about their life changed dramatically and so did the way they saw themselves. No more just the queen of the house and the family, she had no desire to be confined to the house and her male counterpart accepted this new state of things. Looking for a life companion even before marriage, men and women sought to spend time with their partners and more out-of-the-house experiences than they used to. So, women needed to be able to actually do the same activities men. No more chocking bodies, then. No more long, hampering skirts. No more heavy layers of clothing weighting them down.
The scantiness of young women’s clothing was sure shocking for many elders, but it was almost a necessity in the new life young women led. Bodices and long pants were replaced by light, essential underwear. Layers of dressing where replaced by frocks, blouses and skirts. Skirts became increasingly short, with the shorter hem appearing in 1926, just below the knee. The New Woman danced frenetically in speakeasies, she jumped on cars with friends and boyfriends, she would do sports and spend a lot of time outdoors. Her new look reflected her new lifestyle… as well as her new self-awareness.
Starving for beauty
There is no arguing that an active woman had a lean body. The modern woman was someone who was always up to something. She would dance, she would do sports, she would go around town. And even if she didn’t actually do any of these things or did only a part of them, she should look like she did.
The magic words of the 1920s woman were: modern, lean, attractive and healthy.
In fact, health and idea of health became central in Twenties lifestyle. People should not only he healthy, but they should above all look healthy. And because the modern life demanded to be active, young people started to think to an attractive body as a lean, athletic body.
This brought about a completely new practice: dieting, or – as it was then commonly known – ‘reducing’.
In the earlier decades, magazines offered advice in equal amount on how to gain weight (and have a curvy, feminine body) and how to lose weight (if you body was too curvy). But in the 1920s, advice started to lean overwhelmingly toward how to lose weight.
This depended in part on advancement in the medical filed. Medical doctors were the first to advice on cutting fats in response to the first evidences that eating habits and health condition are tightly linked. The eating habits of people actually improved (at least for those layers of society who could afford it) with an increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables and a decrease in the consumption of meat and sugary food. Mothers and wives became more conscious of
what a balanced nutrition was like and changed their consumer habits in response.
But what became a dieting fad went well beyond this. Pushed by the new concept of attractiveness and the example of the thin, willowy Hollywood stars, 1920s girls tried to be thin in all ways possible… including ways that weren’t healthy at all. Dieting pills, chewing gum, laxatives and a plethora of often quite fantastical diets became a young girl’s routine practices.
Counting calories became common especially after Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published her book Diet&Health: with keys to calories in 1918, which sold millions of copies during the 1920s. But all kinds of dieting manuals, commercial diet programs, reducing creams and other weight-loss products flooded the market. Many of these methods were not healthy in the least. Smoking was not only daring, and therefore modern, but it was also considered to be a good way to control weight, so it was widely advertised as healthy.
One of the most popular commercial diets was the so-called “Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet”, a restrictive 585-calory program that recommended to eat only “grapefruit, oranges, Melba Toast, green vegetables and boiled eggs”, and was clearly not a balanced eating routine. But although medical doctors kept cautioning that many of these popular diet fads were potentially dangerous, many young people didn’t care to listen.
Children of the sun
The relationship between people and the sun went though a huge change.
Previous to the Twenties and especially in the XIX century, the good-looking feminine woman would have a very pale complexion, which would suggest her angelic nature –and would also speak of her spending her time inside the house.
Besides, that was a general assumption: wealthy people spent their time indoors, while all the other worked the land, becoming tanned under the sun of long hours working the fields. Being tanned meant to be poor.
In the 1920s, that idea reversed. Doing sports, which meant being slim and attractive, was often done outdoors, so having a “healthy tan” soon became a fad and a status symbol. Being able to sunbath meant having the time to devote to it and the money to travel to sunny holiday places, something only well-off people could afford, while now poor people would more often work long shifts in a fabric rather than out in the fields.
Legend has it that it was Coco Chanel who made the tan the “must have” fashion accessory when in summer 1923 she enchanted French society by stepping off the Duke of Wellington’s yacht with a definite suntan… which she allegedly got by accidentally staying in the sun too long.
Truth be told, by the turn of the XX century the connection between the exposure to the sun and vitamin D had been discovered and sunshine was been advocated by doctors to help avoid some disease and skin conditions.
One early advocate of the benefits of the sunlight was Dr. John Harvey Kellog. His first “Incandescent Light Bed” (one of the first sun beds) was constructed in 1891 and helped relieve many medical conditions including goat, eczema, rheumatism and certain forms of tuberculosis.
But by the 1920s, using sun beds had become a cosmetic practice.
Show up your legs, ladies!
In Victorian society, women (nice girls, that is) didn’t show their ankles. That was considered daring and provocative.
Twenties New Women showed off they legs gladly. In fact, while they plaid down both breasts and hips, they highlighted they legs all the ways they could.
Women had used stockings for a long time, but in the Twenties stockings went through a lot of change. They were made of silk, cotton, wool and rayon.
Rayon was a new synthetic material and so of course it was very popular among young girls. But it was so shiny that many women would powder their legs over the stockings to make them look matte (today’s common belief that girls powdered their naked knees appears to be inaccurate).
Stockings came to about mid or upper thigh and had to be held up by garters or garter belts. Young women would often roll their stocking down, just above or below the knee.
Beige, ivory and pastel colours were favoured, but stockings came in many fashion. Allover patterns were very appreciated, with stripes being the favourite pattern, though polka-dots, bows and zig-zags were also very popular. The most daring girls would go beyond that and embroider contrasting coloured feathers and flowers around the ankles and the calves. Picture would be painted anywhere on calves and knees.
It was really ‘anything goes’ in order to attract attention to the legs.
Nails had been coloured for thousands of years using paste, liquid and waxes made from all sorts of ingredients, largely unchanged for centuries.
Liquid varnish more similar to what we used today was first introduced in 1917, when Cutex launched its varnish made from coloured resins.
The industry of varnish was evolving fast, spurred by the car industry ongoing search for ever faster and more polished varnishes to use in their factories. After WWI experimentation showed that boiling nitrocellulose made it soluble in organic solvents which, once evaporated and dried, left a hard, glossy lacquer.
It was perfect for the car industry, but with just a few little tweaks it became perfect for nail polish too.
The first product, which didn’t really adhere well and soon wore off, were in translucent, soft pinks that created a natural look reminiscent of the old waxes. In 1922 Cutex developed the liquid and powder polish that eventually came in various shades of bright rose, pink and red.
Girls would file their nails oval, sometimes with quite a pointy tip, then varnish only the centre of the nail, leaving the half moon and the tips bare. This helped the varnish to last longer and since it was very difficult to be done by the girl herself, it became yet another status symbol which showed she had the money to pay for a manicure.
The sensual boy-looking flapper
It may be difficult for us, women and men of nearly 100 years later, to understand the beauty of the flapper.
Sure, she showed off many feminine characteristics of beauty, like her eyes, her mouth, her legs, but on the other hand, she also plaid down other features. A flapper would be lean, very lean, not at all curvy. She would in fact play down her hips buy pushing her waistline at hip level and she would bandage her breasts to make them less prominent. On top of all this, she would crop her hair very very tight. In short, she would try to look a boy as much as she could.
To us, this would make for a less attractive woman, not a more sensual one. But we have to consider the underlined suggestions this new look created in that society.
The New Woman would dare to do what women had never dared before. She “painted” her face as “questionable women” did in the past. She cut her long mane which had taken their mothers so much time to care after. She refused the ponderous dresses and opted for a kind of garment that allowed her a range of activities that had been previously discouraged of women.
She tried to look attractive to men because now young people would choose each other rather than accept their family’s decision about their future. Girls, as well as boys, would choose their partner and the family life they wanted together. Besides now they were able to program when to have children and how many.
This was what men found attractive in their “new women”. The cropped hair and the “painted” face talked of a break with the past to embrace a new life of freedom, new values and a new lifestyle that was those young people’s own, because they were the ones who first created it.
This is why, even if a lot of the New Woman’s new look was fuelled by fads and certainly created by the fashion and film industry, it also spoke of a deeper change that had nothing to do with fads. And if it’s true that only a small number of women were able to adhere to the New Woman’s new look, all women – across age, race, class and even culture – strived to achieve that look because of what it implied.
The New Woman was a wild creature hungry for freedom, a figure miles ahead of her time. As the Great Depression fell over America and the world, the New Woman and her expensive look and lifestyle waned. Decades would pass before the liberated woman of the 1960s took up her legacy.
So, this is the end of the New Woman’s New Look series. It was quite a ride, let me tell you. I originally planned to post it in a matter of a couple to months, it took me nearly a year. I really really enjoyed it.
Be assured, this is not the last time I’ll talk about the 1920s New Woman. In fact, I’m already planning a couple other post.
What about you? What did you liked the most and found more interesting? What would you like to read more about? Let’s continue this journey together!
The shifting role and position of women in society was one of the big changes of the 1920s. The way women chose to present themselves and their looks is the mirror of an evolution that goes far beyond mere fashion
- Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
- The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
- Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
- Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
- Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
History – The Roaring Twenties
The Guardian – A history of diets: from Byron to 5:2
Jazz Age Club – The Cult of Sunbathing
Fascination Street Vintage – 1920s Make-Up & Cosmetics Pt. 2 – Tanning
Vintage Dancer – 1920s Stockings, Tights, Nylons History